Culture / Art Republik

Focus: Art of Toko Shinoda

Toko Shinoda is a formidable Japanese trailblazer of modern abstract expressionism, and still a star.

Apr 19, 2016 | By Staff Writer

Toko Shinoda is a woman and an artist ahead of her time. In an era when most women were confined to domesticity, Shinoda successfully married traditional calligraphy and abstract expressionism, rising above her culture to become one of Japan’s foremost modern abstract artists and modern practitioners of the ancient art of calligraphy. Her works are defined by strong yet elegant marks or brush strokes, skilfully balanced by ‘yohaku’ (empty space) – perhaps a clear indication of the woman Shinoda is: bold, feminine and fiercely independent.

Born in 1913 in Dairen, Manchuria, and raised in Tokyo, Japan, Shinoda was heavily influence by her father, the one and only mentor she ever had. Her father’s granduncle was an official seal-carver for the Meiji Emperor, and hence a master in sculpting and calligraphy, inculcating his skills and love for Chinese poetry in Shinoda’s father. At the tender age of six, Shinoda started practicing calligraphy, marking the beginning of the artist’s fascination with sumi ink. However the artist did not willingly abide by the rules of the masters of the ancient writing system, one she felt was rigid and ‘boring’, and started experimenting with the abstraction of the form in her 20s. Then, she also presented the first one-woman exhibit of calligraphy at Kyukyodo Gallery, Tokyo.

Before Shinoda made her way to the United States in 1956 – a time when it was rare for a Japanese to travel out of the country – she had already made a name for herself in art circles. Shinoda had works exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and was commissioned to create murals for the Japanese Pavilion at international trade and culture expositions in the United States, Brazil and Sweden in the early 1950s. Represented by the gallery of Betty Parsons, the doyenne of Abstract Expressionist gallerists, Shinoda was largely inspired by her contemporaries, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Jasper Johns, and started focusing on abstract expressionism in her works.

Silver Spring

Silver Spring

The beauty of Shinoda’s works transcends cultures, languages and social classes. Her artworks are traditional Japanese paper (mostly Japanese washi), Chinese paper, Western paper as well as sheets of gold, silver and platinum. These have been conscientiously used since the start of her artistic life, exuding a sense of Oriental appeal beyond the Western artistic touches. An expert in classical Chinese and Japanese literature, Shinoda depicts elements of the literary art form in her works. Yet, it is not essential for viewers to be able to read or understand the meaning of those characters; they can feel the power of the work from the strength of the lines and strokes. In her works, the calligraphic characters are merely abstract forms that eradicate the need for comprehension.



Print works are also part of the Shinoda’s oeuvre. Using lithography, the artist created fluid print editions of not more than 50. In 2007, Shinoda ceased her successful career as a printmaker to devote her time to painting. At present, at the ripe old age of 102, the artist who used paint on a daily basis now only paints when the mood strikes.

Today, Shinoda’s works can be found in many permanent collections all over the world, including the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, British Museum, Cincinnati Art Museum, Hague Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, Singapore National Museum, Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. She counts the Japanese imperial family as fans and collectors of her works, with the latter showcasing Shinoda’s works in the public rooms of the new Imperial Palace in Kyoto and Her Majesty, The Empress of Japan attending two of Shinoda’s exhibitions.



Demonstrating simplicity and poise in her creations, Shinoda has a flair that is unique and inimitable. An exceptional woman and artist, Shinoda’s spirit definitely shines through in her exquisite art pieces.

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Story Credits

Text by Melody Boh

This article was originally published in Art Republik

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